The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan Stroud

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan Stroud. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 9780593430361

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Adventure/science fiction

What did you like about the book?  In some undetermined date in the future, England has experienced a catastrophe, resulting in destruction, mutation, and the general dissolution of the social contract. The book opens with Scarlett McCain (pilgrim, loner, and accomplished bank robber) awakening to the bodies of four dead men; practical Scarlett is blasé about the situation and is soon back on the road. Stroud masterfully sets the stage, establishing setting and situation with sensorial language, stingily dropping hints about the dangers of this strange world. Coming upon an overturned, wrecked bus, Scarlett finds a rattled pale boy named Albert Browne in an oversized jumper and trainers. At first Charlotte thinks he’s remarkably innocent, sheltered, even incapable. But as the two travelers expeditiously join forces, Scarlett comes to realize that sinister forces trailing the duo are after bumbling Albert, not chasing her ill-gotten gains. Albert can’t control his destructive mutant abilities, but the powers that be (an evil religious order) want him anyway. Thrilling chases, zombie-like cannibals called the Tainted, and dangerous giant birds (plus blood otters, whatever those are!) keep the action simple but lively while the banter and growing affection between the two main characters make us care deeply about their fates. Albert longs to escape to the Great Ruins of London, where he’s heard rumors of a community that will value and shelter him. To this end, the pair eventually take up with old Joe and his odd granddaughter, a toddler named Effie, and sail down the Thames on a decrepit raft toward what they hope will be a sanctuary. (Two different maps included at the front of the book help orient us to the English countryside and detail the river journey.) An open-ended finale sets the stage for future adventures.  Scarlett and Albert are White, as are most other characters; the exception being Joe, who is described as dark-skinned. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? No. I see it’s being promoted as a book for grades 5-8, but like Stroud’s last series (Lockwood & Co) I think it would appeal to high school students as well. It’s often quite brutal, and between the high body count, the torture inflicted on Albert by the truly reprehensible Dr. Calloway, and the flesh-eating Tainted, it might be too scary for elementary readers.

To whom would you recommend this book? Great for Riordan fans who are looking for another series. For me, Stroud is a far more elegant and engaging writer, taking time to develop his characters and imagining telling details (Scarlett regularly meditates on a dog-eared mat and keeps a grimy “cuss box” around her neck, depositing a coin every time she swears).  With its mix of SF, adventure, and fantasy, never shying away from the gruesome, the book also recalls Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga.

Who should buy this book? Middle, high school, and public libraries.

Where would you shelve it? YA, in whatever genre pulls the most eyeballs

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes! If you’re a Stroud groupie like me, this series is off to a roaring start.

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: November 21, 2021

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